The Voynich Manuscript: The Riddle That Defies the Code Breakers

Yale University's Beinecke LibraryPhoto: Henry Trotter

At the heart of Yale University’s sprawling campus a large, rectangular edifice dominates one side of Hewitt Quadrangle. Six pale floors of bronze, granite and translucent Vermont marble rise above ground level and are supplemented by a further three subterranean storeys. Replacing the traditional glass window panes, the pallid marble nullifies the harmful effects that direct sunlight would have upon the building’s precious contents, and creates a compartmentalised and unabashed facade. And the contents are precious indeed, for this is Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, one of the largest buildings in the world dedicated to the collection and preservation of rare texts. Gutenberg Bibles, Dickens’ first editions and many more highly-prized tomes can all be counted among the Library’s impressive collections.

Among the several million manuscripts that reside within the building’s shadowy depths is one particularly intriguing manuscript, catalogued as Item MS408. MS408’s origin, language and meaning are shrouded under a cloak of mystery; even the author is unknown. Its translation has defied NSA code breakers, veteran World War Two decryption experts from Bletchley Park and everyone else on the planet for centuries. Even that learned figure from England’s history, John Dee, is supposed to have owned the tome and found its contents to be unfathomable. Named after the Polish-British-American book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich, who bought it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript – as it is more commonly known today – is an enigmatic item indeed and the subject of much research, conjecture and debate.

Wilfrid M. VoynichPhoto: Rafal T. Prinke

The manuscript’s plain cover belies the mysteries that it embraces. Strange characters adorn the 240 sun-yellowed vellum pages. Their rise, fall and fluidly curving forms grace each folio with a tidy elegance. Captured by a quill pen and a (mostly) un-erring hand, translation of the words has proven to be an arcane inscrutability that seems to simply refuse decryption.

A page of text from the Voynich ManuscriptPhoto: Unknown

The text consists of glyphs that comprise an alphabet of up to 30 characters. Although the flow of syntax is similar to natural languages, there appears to be a distinct lack of punctuation and there are almost no words more than 10 characters long. Also, in many modern languages the words that are used most often tend to be short words of 2-3 characters long, yet the Voynich Manuscript contains very few of these concise words. In addition, the sequences and arrangements of the characters within the words is at times odd with some letters occurring only at the start of a word, while others are to be found only in the middle and some appear only at the end. Not only that, but the text seems to be more repetitive than typical European languages, for instance, it is often stated that the same word can be repeated up to three times consecutively.

The Voynich ManuscriptPhoto: Unknown

Almost every page contains illustrations rendered in ink with washes in various hues that are applied somewhat crudely at times. But while the illustrations, along with carbon dating (1404-1438), have provided us with the best indication of the manuscript’s date of origin, they fail to illuminate the text’s darkest enigmas. They do, however, help to segment the book into six sections, each with their own style and subject matter.

Herbal SectionPhoto: Unknown

In the ‘Herbal’ section, depictions of outlandish plants accompany the words, their once-colourful tendrils and branches curling around the text. Now, much of their paint’s lustre has faded, but the mystery of what they depict has only deepened with time. Each plant is given a single page (mostly) upon which to languish, and a few paragraphs of text that is no doubt a description of some sort. Interestingly, the first word on each page occurs only on that page in particular and thus suggests that it may be the name of the plant. Attempts to identify the plants, either with actual specimens or with the stylized drawings of contemporary herbals, have failed. There are 130 pages of 113 unidentified plant species.

An illustration from the Astrological sectionPhoto: Unknown

Contained within the 26 pages of the ‘Astronomical’ section are astrological drawings and astral charts depicting circular diagrams and celestial bodies. Whirling circles, moons and stars keep company with ‘courtly figures’ and female nudes that emerge from ‘pipes or chimneys’. One particular diagram portrays the constellations of the zodiac, although the final two pages of this section (containing Capricorn and Aquarius) have been lost.

An example of the Biological sectionPhoto: Unknown

The ‘Biological’ part is comprised of mostly words that are interrupted only by the occasional illustration, again showing naked women this time reclining in pools or large baths that seem to form some sort of strange network of pipes. Some have swollen abdomens, suggesting pregnancy, others exhibit crowns.

The Cosmological sectionPhoto: Unknown

‘Cosmological’. This section boasts foldouts of up to 6 pages long and there are more circular diagrams, including a large, detailed piece which depicts nine ‘islands’ or ‘medallions’ that are connected by strange ‘causeways’, and what may be geographical forms.

Voynich Manuscript's Pharmaceutical IllustrationsPhoto: Unknown

With over 100 labelled drawings of roots, stems and various other plant parts and different species of medicinal herbs, the ‘Pharmaceutical’ section is spread over 34 pages. It also shows colourful objects that some have identified as jars used by apothecaries of the time.

The recipe sectionPhoto: Unknown

Next, 23 pages of many short paragraphs have been classed as ‘Recipes’, each margin marked with a flower- or floral bullet-point.

Jan Marek MarciPhoto: Jan Vilímek

The history of the manuscript remains incomplete, most especially (and frustratingly) in its earliest part. The first known owner was Georg Baresch, an “obscure alchemist” from Prague. Baresch (who died sometime before 1662) was unable to translate any part of the manuscript and bequeathed it to an acquaintance of his, Jan Marek Marci of Cronland, the then rector of Charles University in Prague. Marci didn’t know what to make of the mysterious tome either but was sure that Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar of some fame, would be able to give it a shot. In 1666 Marci sent the manuscript with a covering letter (which survives to this day), saying to Kircher: “I was convinced it could be read by no-one except yourself”. After this, records of the book’s whereabouts are non-existent. Conjecture maintains that it was forgotten, residing with the rest of Kircher’s correspondence in the library of the Collegio Romano.

Athanasius KircherPhoto: Cornelius Bloemart

In 1912 Wilfrid Voynich obtained 30 manuscripts from the Collegio who were liquidising some of their assets to fund repair work. Among his purchases, Voynich found the manuscript that now bears his name. Other sources insist that Voynich in fact bought the manuscript from the Jesuit College at the Villa Mondragone just outside Rome. What is certain is that after his death in 1930, the manuscript passed to his widow, Ethel Lilian Voynich (nee Boole). Ethel died in 1960 and left the text to Anne Nill, a close friend. Nill sold the book a year later to a New York antique book dealer named Hans P. Kraus who donated it to Yale University in 1969.

The letter Marci wrote to Kircher gives a clue to who authored the manuscript, saying “the book [was believed by Dr. Raphael Mnishovsky, tutor to Ferdinand III to have] belonged to the Emperor Rudolph II of The Holy Roman Empire and that he presented the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” Marci added that he was “suspending his judgment” about this claim.

Text from the manuscriptPhoto: Unknown

Another proponent of the Roger Bacon theory was the American academic William Romaine Newbold, who offered one of the first solutions in 1919. Newbold stated that the strange biological illustrations in the manuscript actually depict microscopic cellular structures and that the drawings contained within the astronomical section were nebulae and galaxies. As all of the above would be impossible to observe using the technology of Bacon’s era (1561-1626), Newbold insisted that the Franciscan friar must have had access to powerful microscopes and telescopes before they were previously thought invented. Newbold’s solution was accepted as fact until several years after he died when other investigators found irrefutable flaws in his methods. Now, due to dating, Bacon is viewed as an unlikely source for the puzzling book.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum of Natural HistoryPhoto: Michael Reeve

The fact that so many eminent cryptologists and academics have failed to produce any truly definitive revelations regarding the Voynich Manuscript’s translation has led many students of the text to surmise that the contents must be untranslatable i.e. nonsense, perhaps contrived in order to be sold to wealthy buyers. Suggestions have even been made that the language is a form of glossolalia. What is certain is that it is not a forgery crafted by Voynich’s multi-national hand, as carbon dating of the vellum, analysis of the ink by the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago and the discovery of historic references to the manuscript all clear Voynich of any shady dealings.

Prescott Currier, a retired USN Captain, continued the work on the manuscript in the 1970’s. He did not find a ‘solution’, but did identify two very important facts about the document’s contents. He said: “The two most important findings that I think I have made are the identification of more than one hand and the identification of more than one ‘language’. The languages, which he named Voynich ‘A’ and Voynich ‘B’ were based on the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the text. He went on to theorise that it was possible that there could be as many as eight different languages.

A Voynich Manuscript plantPhoto: Unknown

Currier felt that the Voynich manuscript was not completed by a single author, saying: “The reason [my findings are] important is that, if the manuscript were to be considered a hoax as it is by some, it’s much more difficult to explain this if you consider that there was more than one individual involved, and that there is more than one language involved. These findings also make it seem much less likely that the manuscript itself is meaningless.”

Recently, Edith Sherwood has cropped up on the net insisting that the glyphs are actually Italian anagrams and gives several examples. Her web site appears convincing at first glance, but her work has been discredited by Nick Pelling, a ‘leading Voynich Manuscript researcher’ who says: “Might Edith Sherwood be onto something with all this? No, not a hope.” It seems that the book mysteries will be staying closed a little while longer yet.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library InteriorPhoto: Kelly McCarthy

Perhaps future technology holds the key to unlocking the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious codes, but until then, one of the world’s greatest riddles will reside within the Beinecke Library’s walls, a silent conundrum defying some of the greatest analytical minds of our time.